Thursday, February 19, 2015

Review: "McFarfland, USA"

"McFarland, USA” is about as formulaic as movie can be. But despite the fact that every single step of the plot seems preordained, it’s a well-made film with some genuinely moving moments. This falls firmly into the “inspiring sports drama” category, with Kevin Costner playing a coach who takes a ragtag bunch of misfits and turns them into a championship cross-country team.

It follows the “Hoosiers” template pretty closely, with the coach being a down-on-his luck type whose past transgressions have banished him to the remotest outpost to ply his trade. There’s a Jimmy Chitwood type, the gifted standout who has to be wrangled into joining/not quitting the team. And the one kid who has a lot of heart but not much talent, and the lippy student who comes to respect the coach, and so on.

The twist is that it takes place in a dreadfully poor California town made up almost entirely of Mexican-Americans who toil in the fields as pickers. These boys get up at 4:15 in the morning to go pick vegetables for a few hours, go to school, and then pick some more. Everyone they know is a picker, they assume they will be too, and thus a high school diploma is the only thing that’s ever been demanded of them.

Winning? It’s a foreign concept.

Costner plays the new football coach, Jim White -- and boy, does he get ridiculed for that name because, y’know, he’s white! The kids dub him “Blanco” and he soon loses his football job to a rival. But White notices that these kids who work in the sun all day can run fast and long, and pitches the idea of a cross-country team.

At first the boys deride cross-country as a sport for rich white schools, but eventually they come around because, of course, otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie. Niki Caro directed from an original screenplay-by-committee (Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois and Grant Thompson are credited) based on a true story.

Carlos Pratts is solid as Thomas, the best runner who has trouble at home from an abusive father who thinks sports are a waste of time. Maria Bello plays Mrs. White, in a conventional sort of role in which she rides her husband for not spending more time with his family. And Morgan Saylor plays their teen daughter, Julie, who struggles to adapt to her new circumstances.

The movie is as much about the White clan assimilating into a community in which they are the outsiders as it is about sports. At first Coach White is dismissive of the school and his prospects of finding success there, and xenophobic about the young men in bandanas and low-riders whom he assumes to be gangbangers. He’s desperate to get out, but eventually settles into the rhythms of the neighborhood. Costner is his usual steady, assuring self.

In a sense, this movie has much in common with another famous Costner film about a representative of white mainstream society getting lost in a foreign culture and discovering he belongs there -- “Dances With Corredors,” perhaps?

“McFarland, USA” won’t win any points for originality. But it’s got comfortable, naturalistic performances and a few stirring moments to tickle your tear ducts.

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